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Traveling With Bonnets: Why Experts Say Your Opinion Is Embedded In Racism
“Is this really happening? Sorry ladies but there is a time and place for this attire but the airport/airplane isn’t one of them.” That was the caption from a woman in a Facebook travel group for Black women about wearing bonnets while traveling. For anonymity purposes, we’re leaving the name of the Facebook group out.
Then all hell broke loose in the comments. Many people disagreeing with the post.
“She could have anxiety about flying and made herself as comfortable as she could. We never know what a person is dealing with,” one group member wrote.
“We don’t have to wait for others to dismiss us. We as Black women take care of that all by ourselves. If you felt this passionate, have a private conversation,” another group member added.
Meanwhile, others defended the conversation.
“It’s sad that Black people are fighting for mediocrity? We’ve truly got to rise up to our rightful place. This is not who we are. We are so much better than this,” said a group member.
This conversation in the group is not the only one circulating on social media. It begs the question: why is it that when it comes to Black women, there’s hardly ever a time when they can just be as it relates to their choices of fashion and hair?
It seems that Black women are always caught in the middle of respectability politics. They’re on the frontlines of this battle, and they didn’t even ask to be a part of it and some experts agree.
“All women are hyper scrutinized around how they choose to present themselves, however, I think there’s something very specific about questions around Black woman’s presentability, Black women’s hair being ‘done or not’ in public spaces,” said Dr. Kristin Denise Rowe, an assistant professor of American Studies at California State University.
If a Black woman wears her natural hair, some folks will call it unkept or say it’s not neat. Then, when she chooses to wear her hair straight or in a protective style like wigs or weaves, she wants to be European and “not embracing her true beauty.” People will say braids and locs are unprofessional or dirty, which is why the Crown Act is making its rounds through state legislatures.
Then there’s this latest: bonnets in public. When a Black woman chooses to wear it outside the home, she’s ratchet. She “doesn’t know any better,” referring to her socio-economic status, or she’s tacky.
How Did We Get Here?
Glad you asked.
It’s nothing new but in the latest season of “What Black Women Should and Should Not Wear,” Grammy-winning actress Mo’Nique expressed her opinions about wearing bonnets in public.
“I’ve been seeing it at the store, at the mall, I’ve been seeing sisters showing up with these bonnets and headscarves and their slippers, and the question I have for you, my sweet babies, is when did we lose pride in representing ourselves? When did we step away from ‘Let me make sure I’m presentable when leaving my home?’” she says on the video. “All I’m saying is, ‘Could you please comb your hair?’”
And that’s how we got here… yet again.
Soon after, people started posting their opinions (we see you Black Twitter), stating that she was wong and should mind her business.
Other’s defended her decision saying it’s important to present yourself to the world “correctly.”
“The first thing that came to mind, for me, was that it’s a new iteration of a very much longer conversation around what’s appropriate in terms of Black women’s adornment, what’s professional in terms of Black womanhood, and questions around respectability,” said Dr. Rowe responding to the bonnet controversy. “I’m not interested in demonizing Mo’Nique. She is part of a long line of Black folks trying to figure out what the best thing for Black folks is. It’s messy, it’s sticky and it’s not always right. How do we respond to such long histories of oppression and the demonizing of Black hair and Black bodies?”
According to Dr. Rowe, it’s a strategy that Black people have used for decades and something researchers call “linked fate.”
“As one scholar would we say, it falls under the notion of what we call ‘linked fate’ where people feel the optics of what you do impact me […] It’s sort of a racial uplift ideology that has been around for many decades and that’s ‘if we just do the right thing,’ sort of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in terms of adornment, which could mean dressing a certain way or having our hair done, then it would telegraph to wider society that ‘we know how to behave,'” said Dr. Rowe.
Not Just A Problem In America
For Dr. Kyle Ring, a London-based curator for the group in.hair.itance, he tells Travel Noire that the conversation around what’s “right and wrong” for Black women is happening in The UK as well.
“I didn’t know that this was an issue in America. I thought this was just a local issue here,” he said. “It started showing up on in.hair.itance and in the comments and I realized this is a Western issue that Black people, Black women are facing.”
In The UK, Dr. Ring says bonnets and the conversation about headwraps comes down to what’s appropriate and professional for Black women. This policing of Black women is what he calls misogyn-noir.
“It’s a term that was only coined in the last 10 years, and it refers to a type of sexism and racism that specifically affects Black women.”
The bonnet controversy is what he calls a prime example of misogyn-noir.
“A prime example is when I compare [the bonnet conversation] to durags. There’s no real difference between them. It’s something people wear to protect their hair, cover their hair, or to prevent frizz,” he said. “For men, it’s acceptable and fine to the point that they have evolved to a fashion item on the red carpet. But when you look at silk bonnets with the same history, you have people saying that they’re not acceptable, should be left at home, and Black women should have more pride in their appearance.”
According to Dr. Ring, the history of racism, slavery, and colonialism is why there’s a different standard for Black women.
“This controversy has a legacy that comes from colonialism which has historically told Black women that they have ‘certain rules’ put on them, including the need to work harder or present themselves better because there’s a racist society that holds Black women to a higher standard than other people, unfortunately.”
So, Are Bonnets Acceptable In The Airports Or Not?
The answer to the question, according to Dr. Kyle Ring, is to check your intentions and judgments at the door.
“Ask yourself, is your concern about what other white people think about what other Black people are doing? Is your opinion about your socioeconomic status, or is your opinion about your beauty ideals?” he says. “If someone puts a bonnet on their head and leaves home because they don’t feel like their hair is presentable, why would be that be an issue?”